Esposito: Fantastic Four For Cooperstown

The quartet almost became a quintet, and that would have tied a long-standing mark for entrants into the hallowed halls of Cooperstown, as the BBWAA voted this week to induct Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, and Trevor Hoffman into the Hall of Fame. This foursome will join Veteran’s Committee inductees Jack Morris and Alan Trammell this summer to officially receive their plaques on July 29 in baseball’s mythical birthplace.

It will be a crowded stage for sure, but they almost required an extra chair, as longtime Seattle Mariners DH Edgar Martinez came closest to receiving the requisite 75% votes for induction. Martinez was named on 70.4% of the 422 ballots cast in his ninth year of eligibility, and is considered a strong candidate to earn that final boost for immortality next year in his final year on the ballot.

The 75% rule goes all the way back to the 1930s, an original rule by the Hall of Fame for induction, when the first and last time as many as five players were elected in the same year by the writers. That illustrious group included: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson.

And would you believe Cy Young didn’t make the cut that first induction. It’s true. Wow! Tough voters, indeed.

The four new inductees by the writers were introduced to the media on Thursday afternoon at a hotel in Manhattan, and of course, all of them were beaming with pride and grateful for the honor.

Guerrero, through his interpreter – Angels broadcaster Jose Mota – thanked the three organizations he played for, the Expos, Angels, Rangers, and Orioles, and announced that he will go in with an Angels cap on his plaque, the first Hall of Famer to do so.

Amazing. The Angels franchise is actually one year older than the Mets and Astros, but Vlad will be their first Hall of Famer.

Interestingly, the Hall established a rule some years back that they would make the player’s cap choices, using the player’s preference as a recommendation, but Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson quickly endorsed Guerrero’s decision, so Angels it is.

Fans in Montreal may be disappointed Vladie, who was named on 92.9% of the ballots, didn’t choose their beloved tricolor M, as Guerrero first established his talents as an Expo, but the rifle-armed former outfielder was genuinely grateful for his baseball roots as well.

“Those are seven years that I’ll never forget,”
Guerrero said of the first of his 16-year career, “very special years for me.”

Hoffman now joins a crew of Hall of Fame closers that include Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Dennis Eckersley, and Rollie Fingers, but none of these excellent pitchers racked up as many saves as their new bullpen mate, who closed out 601 victories. And as many of you know, the only closer with more saves is the guy who will be inducted next year in his first year of eligibility, guaranteed! Perhaps you’ve heard of him – Mariano Rivera, who poured the sand on a record 652 in-season victories, and a bunch more in the postseason.

Hoffman played the bulk of his career with the Padres, and finished with two seasons in Milwaukee.

In thanking his allegiances, he was as brief as his saves.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity to be here, and as a closer, I’ll try to keep it short. Thank you.”

Thome also has a 6 in front of his most impressive achievement, with 612 home runs, which now rank eighth all-time. But perhaps even more impressive is his record 14 walk-off home runs.

The former Indian, who spent twelve and a half of his 22 seasons in Cleveland, knew long ago that his specialty was always being ready to produce.

Late in his career with the Dodgers, Thome told of his first meeting with skipper Joe Torre. “He told me I might not play every day, I knew I was going to be ready for him on the bench, but he said he was always going to put me in situations to win a ballgame.”

Thome was well-traveled in his 22 seasons. After Cleveland, he spent years with the Phillies (whose manager, Charlie Manuel, was his original hitting coach with the Indians organization and who opened up his batting stance to produce more power), White Sox, Twins, and Orioles.

And now let’s talk about that former third baseman Mets fans still refer to by his given first name, Larry.

Chipper – it’s okay to call me Larry – Jones was beaming that million-watt smile of his all day on this day of recognition. The ebullient Jones was delighted the Daily News greeted him with a back page headline that read, “GO TO HALL, LARRY.” A reporter asked him to pose with the paper, and the new Hall of Famer did so graciously, then asked, “Can I keep it?”

While he had been known as Chipper virtually his entire life, Jones admitted it was Greg Maddux who originally spilled the beans as to his real monicker during the crazed Mets-Braves rivalry days of the 1990s, and it was Mets catcher Mike Piazza, now a Hall of Fame “teammate,” who parlayed the connection.

“When I came up against the Mets,” Jones recalled, “Mike said, ‘I’m not going to call a grown man, Chipper.’ So we would greet each other at the plate and I would go, ‘Mi-chael,’ and he would say, ‘Lar-ry,’ It was mutual respect.”

What might not come across is how Chipper said the names with that half-question inflection raising the voice every so slightly on the second syllable. You know what he means.

It would take a long time to list all of Chipper’s baseball accomplishments – start with 468 home runs, 1623 RBIs, .303 average in 19 seasons, all with the Braves, and a ton of big numbers in 12 seasons in the postseason – but suffice to say he easily qualified with 97.2% of the ballots cast.

It’s hard not to like to guy, who named one of his sons, Shea, in honor of the stadium where he enjoyed some of his greatest successes, and where he points out that two of his all-time favorite games to have played in were losses to the Mets – the first post 9/11 game and Robin Ventura’s Grand-Single in 1999.

“I had a premonition,” Jones recanted about Piazza’s thrilling comeback blast in the post 9/11 game. “I was standing out in left field when Piazza came to the plate and I had a premonition he’s gonna hit a home run and this place is going to go nuts, and I’m going to soak in every minute of it.”

He even kept some unique “souvenirs” from the event.

“I still have some cartridges from the 21-gun salute at my house. That’s where the 21-gun salute was, in left field. I still have them to this day, and they mean the world to me.”

It’s going to be quite an event in Cooperstown this July. Think about it. Fans from the following organizations will have a reason to be there: Braves, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, White Sox, Padres, Brewers, Dodgers, Rangers, Orioles, and Twins.

Make your plans now. Should be fun.

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